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LeBron James and the Taste of Humble Pie

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In a market downturn where 9.5 percent of people are unemployed, the coverage surrounding LeBron James can serve us a pie slice or three of that ol' religious virtue: humility. Most of the press is characterizing LeBron James as a primadonna, a sellout to the city of Cleveland, and worse. Much of the negative critique relies on a tacit and uninterrogated assumption: Sports franchise stars like LeBron James -- and, by extension, sports arenas -- revitalize not only central business districts but entire residential, commercial, and industrial zones. Such claims would have us believe that Michael Jordan's allegedly $10-billion-dollar economic impact revitalized residential neighborhoods in Chicago like West Lawndale and Englewood. Or that Kobe Bryant's five championships somehow trickled down to South Central. Such claims, in part, are the subtext underneath the burning Cleveland jerseys and traitor allegations. The Cleveland complaint -- "He let us down" -- is understandable, but it mistakenly assumes that had LeBron stayed in Cleveland, working folks would somehow benefit beyond purchasing nosebleed seats.

Away with such nonsense, and away with the unsubstantiated notions that sports megastars like King James -- and packed sports arenas -- are inherently reliable strategies for broadly shared metropolitan prosperity! Chambers of commerce and civic leaders often place an inordinate amount of confidence in such strategies. This confidence should be lessened in favor of a more humble approach to economic development, one that recognizes that market contingencies can forestall business deals and that huge stadiums don't necessarily mean living wages for food service workers and parking lot employees.

Secondly, the James saga can be interpreted as serving a slice of humble pie to executives like the Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert. In an open letter to fans, Mr. Gilbert audaciously -- or perhaps asininely -- argued that James' "betrayed" Cleveland by leaving. Really, Mr. Gilbert, betrayal? Mr. Gilbert went even further, associating a "curse" with Mr. James and suggesting that "bad karma" -- certainly not the Psalm 23 companions of goodness and mercy -- will be following LeBron to South Beach. This type of hubris, the idea that Mr. Gilbert can curse and wish bad karma upon a free agent, ought to be publicly denounced. Despite being in a rarefied income strata, the Gilbert-James drama also represents the sense of guilt and "disloyalty" many folks feel -- and perhaps are made to feel by certain corporations -- when they place their personal mission and desires for compensation above "loyalty" to a particular business firm.

Mr. Gilbert, please accept my humble pie. The pie is a sweet potato, one with a message on it. If you look closely, the pie reads: Despite obvious dissimilarities between Mr. James and the incomes of most working-class folks, a traditional argument for fair wages applies to his case -- and their case. Mr. James, who has fattened sports executives' bottom lines since before he had his learners' license, can dunk on folks where he chooses, receive compensation commensurate with his talent and, most importantly, acquire a fair share of the increased productivity and sales' transactions that his labor generates. Even during drawn-out shows on ESPN.

The analogy carries moral force in the opposite direction as well: employees at large sports arenas ought to receive a fair and living wage for the increased productivity and revenue that their labor enables. To the extent that sports executives like Dan Gilbert do not respect (in practice) the biblical admonition that laborers deserve to be paid from the lowest to highest income scales, I pray that community organizers and stand-up politicians will apply public pressure to them -- otherwise known as serving slices of humble pie.

Finally, LeBron James himself serves us humble pie via a protracted but insightful decision-making process. LeBron supposedly took a pay cut and checked his ego to play with the Miami Heat, a team where Dwayne Wade -- one of the league's best players -- has already won a ring. This decision suggests that LeBron, media frenzy aside, has enough humility to grasp the old adage: teamwork makes the dreamwork. Ronald Clark, a fellow Hampton University alum and sports journalist, put the point well in a Facebook post: "It's official...LeBron knows he's not Kobe or MJ...he's Joe Dumars, Scottie Pippen or James Worthy...he's a Robin [and thus not the star, Batman] and he made a Robin decision..."

While I'm not sure how LeBron envisions himself in relation to Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, Mr. Clark's core point illustrates LeBron's humility. Charitably construed, it seems that Mr. James will play Robin to Mr. Wade's Batman en route to a long-term NBA title plan. Allow me to play the predictable pious pun: King James has cast down his crown in order to pick up championship rings. Think about it. Have we ever witnessed a superstar of LeBron's stature choose to play with another young superstar (Dwayne Wade) who has a ring and will likely be the team's leading scorer? Nope.

Most of us will not make decisions with the high visibility or income of LeBron James, but we can choose to be mission-driven, instead of being me-driven, in our vocations. It may mean serving as an associate or youth pastor instead of being senior pastor prematurely. Perhaps it entails a pay cut to transition from the private to nonprofit sector because of an inner call to public service. In a few days, the media attention surrounding James will subside. When it does, I hope our economic development strategies, corporate executives, and personal lives will institutionalize, incorporate, and internalize -- respectively -- the religious virtue of humility.